Today, from a land not too far away, landed upon my desk a signed copy of Anthony Dancer’s latest book, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow (Wipf & Stock, 2010), launched just a few weeks ago here in New Zealand. Readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem will know of my interest in William Stringfellow, whose work I am still drinking deeply from. Now we have Anthony’s volume (which began as a thesis in 1988 under the supervision of John Webster and Chris Rowland, and which includes a ‘Foreword’ by Rowan Williams) to look forward to as well. As a taster, here’s the ‘Introduction’:
William Stringfellow was the kind of oddity that doesn’t come along every day. He spoke truth to power, whether either party was fully ready for such a conversation, as so often they were not. His was a voice from the margins, honed on the street, eloquent and incisive. His was a very human, fragile, passionate life attempting to live in freedom and obedience to God, against the tyranny of empire. He spoke as much with his life as he did his writing. Although reprints of Stringfellow’s books in recent years provide easier access to much of his published writing, there remains no sustained treatment of and engagement with Stringfellow at a biographical level. There are many reasons for this, and although this is no biography it does contain within it a sustained engagement with his life. It is only by engaging his theology through biography that we can begin more fully and comprehensively to appreciate Stringfellow’s significance to us today, particularly as we seek to discern what it means to be human and faithful amidst our rapidly changing social context. Theology, as Stringfellow realized only too well, is a fundamentally practical, political, and missional discipline orientated around, and orientating, our life in the world.
The first chapter introduces Stringfellow and establishes the research methodology employed herein. The relationship of Stringfellow’s life and his theology is such that in seeking to understand the latter it is necessary to enquire into the former. This research therefore takes the form of biographical theology: a critical examination of Stringfellow’s lifework that explores the way in which his commitment to politics and faith informed his vocational (and therefore theological) formation and articulation to the point at which his moral theology becomes most fully immersed in the politics of the Bible. This commitment to politics and faith make personal and social context, private and political life, crucial to the formation of his life and theology, and therefore this book places Stringfellow’s lifework within his socio-political context.
Chapter 2 examines the socio-political context of the 1950s, in relation to which Stringfellow essentially sought to locate himself. These were crucial years for America, dominated by the themes of threat (Cold War and communism) and prosperity (economic growth); excess and fear amidst a culture of consumption provided the framework for cultural identity.
Chapter 3 goes on to examine Stringfellow’s engagement with both the law and the church during this period and pays particular attention to his decision for both faith and law: on both counts a conversion experience was to prove paradigmatic for his later work. This chapter also draws upon his experiences in the ecumenical movement, the law, and later in Harlem. The themes of reconciliation and authenticity emerge to the fore, and the politics of ecumenism—the political dimension of unity—has a high profile. Paying particular attention to examining the emergence of this politicization, it examines his time in Europe, before discussing his commitment to the Bible and the layperson. Attention is also given to his emerging understanding of the Christian life as worship, and the consequences this has for his understanding of the law and the church. Finally, it examines his lifework as he encounters the East Harlem Protestant Parish and poverty, and discovers the concrete reality of the power of death in the principalities and powers. The empirical imperative that dominates his lifework is here a desire for political and personal authenticity.
Following this, chapter 4 explores some of the salient features of the sociopolitical landscape of the 1960s. It shows how this period was one of hopeful democracy, in which movements of dissent and protest began to emerge; it was a time of radical protest and liberal government, and yet by the beginning of the 1970s the nation had become polarized. It explores how, whilst the “threat” of communism persisted, and in fact took very real and manifest form, liberal politics dominated government in the form of the Great Society, and politics and law were seen as morally determinate. Issues of rights came to the fore, mostly on the back of successful civil rights legislation, and left wing politics found a voice on the campuses of America’s colleges through the movement of the new left.
Next, attention is given to Stringfellow’s lifework during this period, in which he confronted what he saw as the state’s bullish attitude of invincibility, along with religion’s apostasy. The dominant theme of his public and private encounters throughout the 1960s and beyond was his commitment to articulating the relevance and importance of the politics of the Bible for living in freedom from the power of death. Emphasis is given to the way it was ultimately, however, less an act of criticism and more an act of restoring hope.
Therefore, chapter 5 explores how he called the church to account through his polemical writing, confronting religion in America, and identifying the complicity of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the maintenance of the state and their betrayal of the gospel. It also examines the hope which he extended by exploring what he believed the ministry and mission of the authentic church of Christ might look like: the centrality of the Bible, the restoration of the roles of priests and people, the seminary underground, and the character of the Christian life which this fosters.
Chapter 6 moves on to examine three radicalizing encounters that transformed his lifework: his meeting with Karl Barth (who advocated America should listen to this man), his rejection at an ecumenical conference on Religion and Race (at which he declared the answer to the racial crisis is baptism), and his meeting and falling in love with Anthony Towne (through which he discovered and experienced love and acceptance at a personal level). It discusses how these events radicalized his lifework in relation to biblical politics.
Following these discussions, chapter 7 examines their effects upon his lifework by examining his prophetic confrontation with Johnson’s Great Society. This represents not so much a radical departure as a radical reorientation in relation to the power of death. The Great Society was the political hallowed ground of the mid-1960s, and Stringfellow’s confrontation draws upon the resources of his lifework to date. Particular attention is given to his criticisms of race and poverty, given their prominence in his lifework. It goes on to show how, following these criticisms, Stringfellow once again offers hope, this time detailing what he terms the ethics of reconciliation—a demand not for novelty, but orthodoxy for life. It therefore looks at his incarnational christological ethic, which requires a revolution in the way in which America conceives of Jesus Christ: it is biblical politics—reconciliation of creation to God in Christ, fostering realism, inconsistency, radicalism, and intercession.
Finally, this book explores his own experience of life-threatening illness and personal confrontation of death. It discusses the way in which this was at once both a personal and public encounter, upon which he brought biblical politics to bear in resistance and advocacy. It then goes on to discuss the way in which this fostered a further and final point of radicalization in his lifework leading directly up to the production of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: the emergence of semiotic creativity, in which Babylon and Jerusalem confront one another.
The chapters of this book weave our way through a foundational part of his life and work. His lifework teaches us about hope. It is deeply political and intensely personal. It is vulnerable, human, inconsistent, and not without mistakes. It is woven together at the edges of society, pulling together the varied threads of experience and encounter. There is both a sweetness and a lament in the weaving that teach us something profound about being biblical people.
This book is dedicated to all who walk this path. Most especially, it is dedicated to Hera.
Finally, there is a saying in Maori: E kore te kumara e korero mo tona ake reka (The kumara never tells of its own sweetness). A traditional staple food for Maori, it is left for those who delight in the kumara and feed off it to speak on its behalf. So it is with Stringfellow. I am proud to have the responsibility to speak of such sweetness, and hope it may enrich lives.